On December 10, 2009, Greenpeace took its message to save the climate (summit in Copenhagen) directly to EU Heads of State who were gathering in Brussels. Activists managed, to their own surprise, to step onto the red carpet, where they delivered their “EU, save Copenhagen” message in front of the cameras.
Eleven people were subsequently charged with “Using False Documents”, and one of them was also charged with “Producing False Documents”, on the presumption that his press accreditation has been used. Defendants come from Belgium, the Netherlands, UK and France and they face sentences up to five years.
Outrage and astonishment: those are the words that came to my mind when I learned of the trial. How can it be that in a democratic country, at the heart of Europe, citizens and NGOs are increasingly facing prosecution because they take an active role in society? How can we bear witness and expose environmental issues if our core values – nonviolent direct action, creative confrontation – are under threat? The charges, even if not directly related to any form of censorship, do represent an infringement of freedom of speech.
And even if acquitted in this case, the prosecution of peaceful activists does potentially have serious consequences. Citizens who wish to speak out get scared away by the judicial aftermath of a peaceful action, and organisations like Greenpeace are criminalised and thrown on a pile together with terrorists.
I feel I need to say that this trial should not take place because our activists, as always, never intended to harm anyone or to bring damage to anything. They did what they did because they felt the sense of urgency – the climate summit in Copenhagen was nearing its end and facing failure – necessitated conveying a clear message to the European leaders.
Of course, during European summits security measures are strict or at least, they should be. We feel that by actually getting onto the red carpet, our activists may have embarrassed Belgian security services. But that was not their aim, and embarrassment is one thing, bringing a peaceful citizen expressing his or her concern before court is another. Anyway, when the climate and the future of our planet are at stake, climate change is the issue, not security protocols!
The charges of using and producing false documents can easily be countered: the documents weren't false at all. The activists had badges that had their real names, real photos and even a Greenpeace logo on them. A simple security check could have easily unveiled the presence of Greenpeace activists among the Very Important Escort. But: they weren't checked. And so, the documents weren't only “not false” but also “not used”.
Can you walk up to a European Summit and expect to not be arrested? No, of course not. But any citizen should at worst get off with a warning or a fine, so why wouldn't peaceful activists? Because, after all, expressing your opinion and calling for a rescue of the planet is not a crime, is it?
The trial starts today in Brussels at 3 PM. I will keep you posted on the demands of the prosecutor!